Containment, Reform, and Abuse: On John T. McGreevy’s “Catholicism”

By Kevin HartNovember 13, 2022

Containment, Reform, and Abuse: On John T. McGreevy’s “Catholicism”

Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis by John T. McGreevy

THE WORD “CATHOLIC” comes from the Greek and means “whole” or “universal.” Until the Great Schism of 1054, there was only the one Christian Church: thereafter, it was divided between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. With the Reformation, Christianity fractalized. Nonetheless, it still makes good sense to speak of the Catholic Church as universal, for one can find Catholics, practicing or not, all over the world. Before Vatican II (1962–65), one could hear mass anywhere and understand it — if one knew a little Latin. Nowadays, one would have to seek out the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, which is usually more easily found than the Novus Ordo (the mass of Pope Paul VI) in Latin. Even if one attends mass in Spanish, Japanese, or Igbo, one will still hear a universal message — Christ came to save humankind from our sins — and be invited to participate in the same sacramental system.

Ten years ago saw the appearance of Robert Wilken’s wonderful The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (2012). In engaging prose and with an admirable knowledge of early Christianity in many of its facets, Wilken showed that the faith was hardly confined to Europe in its first millennium: it ranged from Armenia to China, from Tibet to Sri Lanka, and its vitality was palpable everywhere it went. Now, in his new book Catholicism, John T. McGreevy offers us another global history of Christianity, this time from the French Revolution to Pope Francis. This is not a story, like Wilken’s, of conversion, growth, and intellectual excitement, but mostly one of containment, reform, and abuse. Like Wilken, McGreevy looks to “global history,” seeing the past as far more than European and far more than the product of any one civilization. Unlike Wilken, McGreevy seems entranced by the adjective “global,” and it can be hard to know at times if he uses the adjective descriptively or evaluatively. Not so long ago, global history was a vibrant new thing, yet the adjective has flaking gilt these days, partly because of overreach on the part of authors and partly because writing on specific individuals and places is often more memorable than attention to large-scale connections and the uncovering of vast hidden unities. We want to hear the whole story, but no story is ever the whole story. Global histories are selective, and McGreevy’s, though capacious, is no exception.

The first oddity about McGreevy’s global history is that the Catholic Church is largely treated in isolation from other churches, especially the Orthodox. One might think that a global history would note connections between the two main historical forms of Christianity, including their uneasy relations in recent centuries, and explain why Catholicism has spread far more broadly than Orthodoxy. It is also peculiar that the various rites of the Catholic Church play no compelling roles in the book. One might be forgiven for thinking that, for McGreevy, Catholicism is synonymous with the Latin rite. The Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean rites are all significant, if considerably smaller in numbers of adherents than the Latin one. There are theological, as well as liturgical, differences between several of them, and careful attention to such differences would be one sure way of beginning to indicate the scope of Catholicism. Of course, one could not stop with the seven rites. One of the most salient aspects of Catholicism today is its growth in the eastern and southern hemispheres. If you want to see the Church in vivid ascent, go to Africa or China, not to France or Italy, and there one will see Catholicism dealing with the withdrawal of “Europe” as supplying an inevitable model for Christianity.

Also odd is that “Catholicism,” for McGreevy, seems to name almost exclusively a set of social, political, and historical practices without examining for long what, intellectually and spiritually, animates them. He is interested in the relations of the Church and national identities, in struggles between ecclesial authority and democracy, in missionary activity and imperialism, and even, within the Church, in clashes between reaction (Ultramontanism, a school of thought attributing heavy importance to the power of the pope, for example) and reform (Conciliarism and Nouvelle théologie, for instance). But he is strangely uninterested in Catholic spirituality or theology since the French Revolution. It may not be his gift as a historian to evoke in this text the force and texture of the love of God, ideas about Him, or ways He manifests Himself.

It is inevitable that in a book of over 500 pages, one will also find factual mistakes. One can only smile to read (twice) that Thomas Aquinas lived in the 12th (rather than 13th) century, or that, in the 1960s, Australian bishops got to Rome by boat from Sydney in just two weeks — the journey usually took between six to eight weeks.

No philosopher would recognize McGreevy’s description of phenomenology, and one looks in vain for an explanation of why that particular philosophical school has appealed to so many Catholics over the past century. Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Karl Rahner, among others, make brief appearances, but they seem to be no more than names in unrooted debates about Neo-Thomism. The passion and concreteness of their thought is never communicated. One looks in vain for Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the main voices of Catholic theology since Vatican II. True, McGreevy is not offering us a history of Catholic devotion or Catholic thought, but in Catholicism, prayer, thought, and institution are intimately related. Liberation theology was never confined to Latin America, “theological aesthetics” is discussed everywhere, and contemplative prayer is practiced in every part of the world.

One aspect of this matrix of prayer, thought, and institution, and one that is fundamental to the practice of the faith, is the liturgy. Most Catholics will never read the principal documents of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Dei Verbum, regardless of their importance over the last 57 years. But many of us have strong views about the mass and have had since the vernacular mass was introduced in 1965, replacing the Tridentine rite, which had been celebrated continuously in the Latin rite since 1570. Many Catholics have come to welcome the Novus Ordo in the vernacular, believing themselves to be more involved in this style of celebration: they like to have a layperson pray the petitions in their native language, and they prefer to see the priest facing them as he prays. Others, especially many younger people, find the vernacular translations clunky, the music dismaying, the hymns anodyne, and the exchange of peace a distraction; they long for the aura of the sacred that comes with Latin and the sheer sense of religious awe associated with the old rite, especially as regards the celebration of the Eucharist. What’s more, in the new mass there is a felt loss of continuity between oneself (and one’s children) and Catholics of past ages and in other parts of the world. A volume on “global” concerns would, one might think, dilate on such things for a page or two.

McGreevy is perfectly right to stress that the sexual abuse scandals in Australia, Chile, Ireland — in short, everywhere — have precipitated a “credibility crisis” as regards the spiritual standing of the Church hierarchy. The evil that has been exposed, in stratum after ecclesial stratum, and the sheer poverty of the responses, have shaken the moral authority of the Church. The least the Church could have done is for the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops to go down on their knees and beg forgiveness of the laity for the abuse done, the trauma generated, and the lack of care and compassion shown in the aftermath. Strangely, McGreevy does not say anything about the claims about many Vatican officials (and others) living double lives that make up Frédéric Martel’s disturbing 2019 study Sodoma (released in English translation as In the Closet of the Vatican). Perhaps no one can control the Church, even in the Vatican, let alone throughout the world.

As I put down McGreevy’s thick volume, the parts that stay with me most strongly are the vignettes of individual Catholics and their struggles over the last two centuries. I think of Mbange Akwa and Sr. Josephine Bakhita toiling in Africa while having to deal, uncomfortably at times, with European overlords. I think of Anton Waler, sentenced to a decade in a Soviet prison because he served on a parish council. And I think of Edith Stein, who had become a Catholic nun yet still died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. I even think of John Sayers Orr, who dressed as the Archangel Gabriel when haranguing crowds into a froth of anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland and New England. These pictures gain point and vitality from the sweep of the narrative, its attention to tectonic movements over more than 200 years, and its choices of illuminating details. For example: “As late as 1840, only eighteen out of over eighty French dioceses used the Roman missal.”

McGreevy inevitably ends Catholicism with a brief consideration of Pope Francis and the huge challenges he faces. The pope’s commitment to Vatican II, or at least his understanding of it, is fulsome, even to the point of not testing its fractures, seeing what weight it can bear and just where, and appraising some of its shoddy workmanship as well as its brave efforts at communal vision. It is one thing to look to Vatican II, the 21st evangelical council of the Church, and to urge all faithful Catholics to regard it as giving new life to the faith and not to look back. It is quite another to use the council to divide the Church, to impose, however insouciantly, bits and pieces of social liberalism on the faithful that many cannot reconcile with the Gospels or the long centuries of earlier Catholic teaching and practice.

Why Francis seeks to restrict the extraordinary form of the Roman rite when the other six rites of the Church celebrate the mass in not dissimilar ways is one sign that, even if the Congregation for the Eastern Churches answers to the pope, he remains fixed in the tight groove of the Roman rite. He may be from Argentina, he may make many pastoral visits around the world, he may value the poor, he may endorse the Amazonian liturgical rite, and he may charm many people, but he also embodies a peculiar authoritarianism of the Left, one that, like its specular counterpart, tries to reign in difference as much as it can. If we do not see this authoritarianism often or even very clearly, it is largely because Francis dances between many of the usual positions of the Left and the Right. He learned more than how to dance the milonga when he was a young man in Argentina.

Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis is a wide-ranging work, although it sometimes shows signs of overreach and haste; it is more rewarding in its attention to externals than in thinking about what was once the vibrant inner life of the Church, and is nuanced in its criticisms of what the Church has become in certain areas. The energy that marked the first thousand years of Christianity, as Wilken documented it so well a decade ago, has largely dissipated, especially in Europe. McGreevy describes a Catholic Church that has indeed expanded across the globe but that has also spiritually contracted in recent years by awkwardly accommodating itself to the social desires of the First World and by disgracing itself with respect to the sexual abuse crisis. On finishing the book, one can only wonder if, should things continue in the same direction, another global history of the Church undertaken in 10 years’ time will be able to distinguish it from the world it once set itself against with such urgency.


Kevin Hart holds the Edwin B. Kyle Chair of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. A new book, forthcoming from Chicago University Press, is the volume of his Gifford Lectures, Lands of Likeness: For a Poetics of Contemplation.

LARB Contributor

Kevin Hart is the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His books include Barefoot (Notre Dame University Press, 2018) and Poetry and Revelation (Bloomsbury, 2018). A new book, forthcoming from Chicago University Press, is the volume of his Gifford Lectures, Lands of Likeness: For a Poetics of Contemplation.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!